A kerfuffle that exploded online in the past few days over who created the concept of a "bristlebot," a small robot mashed up with a toothbrush, looks like it has a happy ending after an agreement between a New York publisher and two Silicon Valley "makers."
The controversy arose when a forthcoming book called "The Invasion of the Bristlebots" was discovered at the recent New York Toy Fair, raising the hackles of many who were deeply familiar with the concept of bristlebots, which had first been spread in late 2007 by the Silicon Valley makers, Lenore Edman and Windell Oskay, otherwise known as Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories.
In a post on how to create a bristlebot on the Make magazine blog in December, 2007, Edman and Oskay wrote:
The BristleBot is a simple and tiny robot with an agenda. The ingredients? One toothbrush, a battery, and a pager motor. The result? Serious fun. The BristleBot is our take on the popular vibrobot, a simple category of robot that is controlled by a single vibrating (eccentric) motor. Some neat varieties include the mint-tin version, as seen in Make Magazine...and the kid's art bot: a vibrobot with pens for feet.
Since that post, Edman said, bristlebots have become one of Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories' most popular creations, one that has spurred people all over the world to work on their own bristlebot projects, a development that Edman said was "fantastic." The original post also linked to a video (see below) on making one of the little robots that has since been viewed on YouTube more than 2.1 million times.
Given that, and the fact that the book from Klutz publishers (a division of Scholastic) had neglected to offer any credit to Edman or Oskay, or any acknowledgment that someone else had previously worked on bristlebots, upset a lot of people.
In a post on the Make magazine blog Thursday, senior editor Phil Torrone called the Klutz book project, which was authored by Pat Murphy, a "sad day for makers." And Edman and Oskay wrote on their own site: "We were never contacted by Klutz (or Scholastic), which we find surprising, being that we are the instigators of the current brush-based vibrobot movement, and the coiners of the term bristlebot."
For its part, Scholastic initially took a wait-and-see attitude. Kyle Good, vice president of corporate communications, told CNET News in an e-mail: "Klutz is genuinely surprised by this reaction to our book. The development of 'Invasion of the Bristlebots' by the Klutz creative team dates back to at least early 2007 and was developed internally, like other Klutz products. In light of this misunderstanding, we're contacting the folks at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories in the interest of addressing the concerns that have been raised."
On Friday afternoon, the two sides talked, and according to Edman, it appears that a resolution was reached.
"I think they want to do the right thing," Edman told CNET News. "It sounds like they want to give us acknowledgment and work with us to make things right."
Edman said that there were still details to be worked out with Klutz, and that she couldn't go into specifics of the agreement, but she characterized the conversation as a "good call."
In a statement issued by Scholastic late Friday, Murphy, the book's author, also said that the discussion with Edman had been "good" and productive.
"We spoke about our shared commitment to making science and technology accessible to children," Murphy's statement began. "We began a discussion of ways that Klutz could acknowledge the exceptional work that Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories had done in bristlebot research--starting with this message and continuing with acknowledgment in the next printing of the book and on the Klutz Web site."
Murphy also said that her bristlebots project did begin inside Klutz.
"At Klutz, the toothbrush robot evolved from the work of another editor and content developer on vibrobots....Sometime in early 2007, his efforts to shrink a vibrobot to a size that would fit on a book led him to strap a pager motor on a well-worn toothbrush. When he left Klutz, I worked on a tight deadline to refine his work and develop ways that kids ages eight and up could play with these Bots. Unfortunately, when working on a tight deadline, I tend to focus inward, rather than looking outward for others who might be able to help. And publishers, unlike the maker community--or the education community, where I spent many years--tend to keep their research under wraps until we're ready to publish."
Still, many in the maker community will find it improbable that bristlebots were created by anyone except Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories. Yet, even if true, Edman and Oskay didn't have much, if any, of a legal complaint against the publisher, said Michael Barclay, an intellectual property attorney at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.
"Concepts are kind of fuzzy things," said Barclay, who was speaking generally and not about the specifics of the bristlebots controversy. "The generic concept of putting a robot together with a toothbrush would be pretty hard to protect....It's very hard to protect an idea."
But to Edman, the dispute was never about the law.
"I'm not at this point concerned with any legal situation," Edman said. "I'm much more concerned with the maker community, and that their rights are protected to continue to do projects like this and not feel that if they put a project out there that somebody's going to come along and use that project for financial gain without contacting the maker. So, is it a legal right? It's more a community ethos, the morals of the community and the community behavior that I'm interested in."
To people like Torrone, who is a passionate advocate for the maker community, the apparent resolution between Klutz and Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories seems like a good thing.
"This is great news for makers," Torrone said. "It means there are huge companies interested in what makers create. I'm sure (Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories) will show how traditional business can work with the maker community to the benefit of both."
Torrone added that he, like Edman, hadn't been looking at the dispute from a legal perspective. Rather, he too had been concerned that the situation might mean that makers can see their work appropriated by others without proper credit, something that might shut off the inspiration of future creators.
"My concern...was about what type of company Scholastic and Klutz wants to be, what world they want kids to grow up in," Torrone said. "They can credit makers and work with them or they can choose to hijack unique inventions without crediting makers. I'm pleased to see Scholastic and Klutz re-evaluated their position once they rediscovered the overwhelming clear-cut evidence that bristlebots came from (Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories)."
For Edman, the agreement with Klutz is an example of "an opportunity for a company like Klutz to collaborate with a community...and develop ideas with them, rather than the other way around. If we can work in concert, it will be much more successful."